Saturday, November 01, 2003
"The Last Ridge": I recently finished reading McKay Jenkins' "The Last Ridge," a history of the Army's famed 10th Mountain Division. Anyone interested in military history or WWII will enjoy this book and earn a new appreciation of some of the men who fought in the mountains of Italy.
While historians such as Stephen E. Ambrose have written extensively about the D-Day invasion of France and the push towards Germany, much less has been written about the war in Italy -- especially during the waning months of the war as it became obvious that the crushing blow Hitler's war machine would come through France and Belgium. In spite of the ever-increasing certainty of the allied victory, the troops of the 10th Mountain Division routed German soldiers, driving them out of Italy's Po River Valley.
Jenkins, with substantial help from 10th Mountain Division veterans and the Division archives at the Denver Public Library, offers both tragic and heartwarming anecdotes about the men of the 10th. One of the latter recounts how the men of the 10th captured Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's villa, and how one soldier, who'd grown up in Montana in a home without electricity or indoor plumbing spent a night in Mussolini's bed.
The legacy of the 10th Mountain Division is threefold:
First, it reinforces the value of soldiers who are both highly-trained and very physically fit. The 10th included former and future world-class skiers and mountaineers.
Second, the value of having the best equipment. Though the 10th didn't actually fight with much of the equipment that they tested high in the Colorado Rockies (due to logistics problems which are often inherent in war), their work testing sleeping bags, boots, gloves and other gear impacted mountaineering and cold-weather combat techniques for decades to come.
Third, the 10th demonstrated that combat troops are most effective when they are only on the front lines for a few months at a time, rather than years. In all, the 10th only spent about four months in the Italian campaign, but they were far more effective than troops who'd been on the front for a year or more.
Jenkins' book is well worth a read.